Telling the Story: An Interview with Director Paul Curran

The following interview took place on the Santa Fe Opera “ranch”, between rehearsals of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel” with the deeply appreciated facilitation of the Santa Fe Opera:

[Below: Scottish director Paul Curran; edited image, based on a Christopher Reece Bowen photograph.]

Wm: I like to begin each interview with some questions about an artists’ formative experience. 

PC: I grew up in a conservative Catholic family in Maryhill and Easterhouse, a very poor neighborhood in Glasgow. I lived in the kind of housing that you in the United States might call “the projects”. The surroundings were hideous, with drugs, unemployment and teenage pregnancy through the roof.

Wm: This environment doesn’t seem to be one that would suggest your career path as an opera director.  What were your school experiences as a child? 

PC: My interests were languages (French and Italian) and literature. I was able to do well in school, because the philosophy of Scotland’s educational system favors the student who really wants to learn.

Wm: How so?

PC: We had superb teachers that allowed students to follow their interests. The contrast between schools in Scotland and England is best described in Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The Latin root of the word education means leading out, not hammering in as happens in most English schools. Those of us who wanted to learn educated ourselves.

I finished school at age 16 and won scholarships.

[Below: King Dodon (Tim Mix, left) confers with General Polkan (Kevin Burdette, second from left) in the 2017 Santa Fe Opera production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel [Le Coq d’Or]; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Wm: What do you regard as the early influences on your interest in music and in theater?

PC: As a young boy, I studied music and played clarinet in the Scottish Youth Orchestra.

My schoolteachers took us to see the Glasgow Citizens Theater, a major theater group that operated in Glasgow. From age 11, one of my teachers would take us to see a work like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, not just once, but three times in a season.

The Citizens Theater was a low budget enterprise. Everyone from the theater’s cleaning staff to the artistic director got the same salary. Whatever they worked on, everyone understood what each person brought to the company.

Wm: What was your first experience with opera?

PC: My first opera, when I was 15, was the Scottish Opera production of Berg’s “Wozzeck” in 1980. The opera was directed by David Alden (who is also at the Santa Fe Opera this season). His production resonated with me because it was set in the type of neighborhood in which I was still living. I got standing room for later performances and saw it five times.

Wm: By what process did you get involved with directing opera?

PC: At that time I fell in love with a dancer, and it was he who inspired me to pursue dancing as a career. I spent several years performing, particularly in Finland, Scotland and Germany, when I severely injured a hip in a fall. That injury ended my dancing career.

I was in Australia in a relationship with an actor, and was deciding what to do next. My partner said: “You should be a director. You love the sound of your own voice. You’re full of your own opinions and you’re always bossing people around.”  I loved the idea, but knew I needed proper training in a drama school.

Drama schools in Britain were four years in length. I was aware that Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) required only a year of academic courses, followed by a year of practical work.

NIDA only takes a few students each year and their expenses are covered. I auditioned, stating that I wanted to be at a place where I could make mistakes. If I was going to be failure, I wanted it to be in the safe environment of a school. I was chosen.

[Below: a scene from the 2017 Santa Fe Opera Paul Curran production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel [Le Coq d’Or.]

Wm: What did you learn at NIDA?

PC: I loved drama school. My time at NIDA was a truly wonderful experience. I worked with students who were to become major Australian and Hollywood actors.

In drama school one of the first pieces I chose to direct was Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. I assisted on a wide range of drama, including Shakespeare and the Goetz’ drama, The Heiress.

Every two weeks of each month we had to create a 30 to 45 minute piece. We did Goethe’s “Faust” in German as an exercise in communication. Since I knew French, I was called upon to translate scenes and acts from 13 Moliere pieces for the graduation play.

I worked with the Australian Children’s Opera, and it was through my work there that I came to know Australian director Baz Luhrmann, who had watched my rehearsals, and asked me to assist him on his Australian Opera production of Britten’s opera “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Wm: This was Luhrmann’s famous India-themed production at the Sydney Opera House.

PC: Yes, I worked with Luhrmann for two years on productions of “Dream”. I also worked on Francisco Negrin’s production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare”.

I was always industrious and always looking for work. I was part of the English Touring Opera Company’s 14 week tours for two consecutive seasons with productions of Massenet’s “Werther” and Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.

I also was an interpreter and stagehand at the Edinburgh International Festival, and worked there for five seasons. It was there that I had one my big career breaks.

Wm: Explain!

PC: The Kirov Opera in 1995 was presenting a production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sadko” at the Edinburgh Festival Theater with a Russian stage manager who did not speak English. Because it was a technically complex production, the union refused to allow the director to call the show.

Because I spoke both languages, I was assigned to be the stage manager. I’d never seen the show. I had one rehearsal with 200 people.

This experience led to my being asked to work with the Kirov Opera by Valery Gergiev at the Royal Albert Hall on Borodin’s “Prince Igor”.

I was also invited to Rome and Covent Garden to assist on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Golden Cockerel” with a director who spoke neither Russian nor Italian. My languages were hugely useful in starting my career.

Wm: You were director of the Norwegian Opera for four years beginning in 2007.

PC: At Norwegian Opera I would do the standard repertory pieces as well as new works and contemporary pieces and I invited directors such as Robert Carsen, who did Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West”.

Wm: My first opportunity to see your work was your 2008 Santa Fe Opera production of Britten’s “Billy Budd”. How did your association with Santa Fe Opera begin?

PC: In 2005 I had an interview with Richard Gaddes (then the company’s General Director.) Although nothing at first came out the interview, the company ran into a problem with their upcoming 2005 production of Britten’s “Peter Grimes”.

They lost their director and needed someone to replace him who could deal with the very tight schedules that the Santa Fe Opera imposes on production teams.They knew I had directed the opera in Italy. Then when “Billy Budd”, another Britten opera, was planned, I was invited to direct it.

[Below: Billy Budd (Teddy Tahu Rhodes, center) is surrounded by the crew of the Indomitable in Paul Curran’s 2008 Santa Fe Opera production of Britten’s “Billy Budd”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wm: I regarded your production of “Billy Budd” as masterful [See Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008.] Some of the production’s scenes used technological innovations with amazing results.

PC: I know we put a lot of pressure on the Santa Fe Apprentices who were the male chorus for the scenes that took place below decks.

As you recall, when the scene changed to the below decks the stage floor lifted to reveal the men. When that happened it created a phenomenal sound, but it required the men of the chorus to remain crouched or lying down below the stage for a long period of time before the floor opened to reveal them.

Wm: One of the brilliant effects was the image of Billy Budd’s hanged body through the sails. How did you create that effect?

PC: First, we had to put Teddy Tahu Rhodes, the Billy Budd, in a harness and film a movie of him falling. For the performance there was a camera in the big mast that projected Rhodes’ body dropping. The effect looked very realistic as it was in 3D.

[Below: Captain Vere (William Burden, below) spends the rest of his life reliving the hanging of Billy Budd (Teddy Tahu Rhodes, above) in Paul Curran’s 2008 Santa Fe Opera production of Britten’s “Billy Budd”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Wm: Later that year, I saw your production of Berg’s “Lulu” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago [Review: “Lulu” at the Lyric – Chicago, November 19, 2008]. I can’t imagine that opera being done better than you did.

PC: I think of the character Lulu as the type of person that would simultaneously attract and repel a person. I had a simple idea. I saw the “Lulu” as a black and white story, with touches of color. For example, in one scene the color might be a flower bouquet. In the next scene the flowers were dead and black.

[Below: Marlis Pedersen as Lulu in Paul Curran’s 2008 Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Berg’s “Lulu”; edited image, based on a photograph for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Wm: It included a short silent film by John Boesche that was projected during musical interludes between scenes. How was that made?

PC: We created the movie using different parts of the Lyric theater for the scenes, including staircases and backdoors. We had no budget to rent studios, so everything had to be improvised. The scene with the doctors was underneath the Lyric stage where electrical equipment was stored. The judge was inside the house itself on the left hand wall. We created a jail cell with a single grille in the exit corridor house right. I was blessed that this all came together and worked so well. We filmed it all in a single day.

Wm: I next saw your “Boheme” in Santa Fe [David Lomeli, Ana Maria Martinez Shine in Deeply Cast “La Boheme” – Santa Fe Opera, July 2, 2011]. That’s not an opera that needs much change from Puccini’s stage directions, is it?

PC: Why reinvent the wheel? What am I going to add to “Boheme” that’s better? Playing the opera straight allows you to concentrate on the characters and their relationships with each other.

I believe in directors that believe in storytelling. If you try to overdo “Boheme” with wacky ideas you lose the story’s impact. We plotted out how to move from Act I to Act II without a break and likewise for Act III to Act IV, but it makes not sense to try to make the characters into something different than Puccini intended. I say keep “Boheme” and “Tosca” simple. Don’t try to overdo Puccini.

I don’t understand the Met’s production of “Boheme” where the Bohemians live in a large apartment that makes no sense for SELF impoverished men.

Wm: Are there Puccini operas that you haven’t done that you would like to do in the future?

PC: I’d be interested in “Manon Lescaut” and in “Fanciulla del West”.

Wm: You directed Britten’s “Albert Herring” in a production that was seen both in Santa Fe and Los Angeles. What were your thoughts on it? [Countdown to the Britten Centennial: Conductor James Conlon, Director Paul Curran in Reverential Mounting of Britten’s “Albert Herring” – Los Angeles Opera, February 25, 2012.]

PC: “Albert Herring” is a fun show. It’s a complex story of a young man’s discovery of his sexuality. Alek Shrader was perfect in the role.

[Below: Albert Herring (Alek Shrader, below) pines below a window in which Sid (Joshua Hopkins, right) and Nancy (Kate Lindsey, left) are expressing their love for each other in Paul Curran’s 2010 Santa Fe Opera production of Britten’s “Albert Herring”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

My only problem with Alek Shrader is that he’s so good looking that no one could believe he couldn’t find himself a date. So we had to figure out ways to make him look dorky, until the final scenes when he could show off his good looks.

Wm: In my review of your “Herring” I remarked at how cleverly choreographed it was, particularly the scene changes. Does your background in dancing and choreography influence how you direct onstage movement?

PC: Having been a dancer, I use choreography in every job I ever do. A person’s body language is telling you something. What is choreography other than specifying body language? The scene changes needed choreography as Santa Fe has no curtain so everything is always in view.

Wm: Your next production I saw in Santa Fe was your production of Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago”. That seemed like a change of pace for you. [Rossini Royalty: DiDonato, Brownlee, Pizzolato and Barbera in Curran’s Staging of “Donna Del Lago” – Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 2013.]

PC: “Donna del Lago” is a weak dramaturgy with strong characters. I had investigated other productions of it, and saw there were various ways to interpret it.

[Below: A disguised King James V (Lawrence Brownlee, left) visits Elena (Joyce DiDonato, right) at her home in Paul Curran’s 2013 Santa Fe Opera production of Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Because the characters were strong and the music was important, I decided that it was best way to present it as taking place in some late medieval era, like an episode of “Game of Thrones”. My thought was not to over-intellectualize it, to keep the production simple, and to let the vocal fireworks, characters and relationships provide the drama.

Wm: Next, I was at the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus” which you directed [World Premiere Review: A Lavish Dallas Opera Production for Mark Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus” – December 4, 2015.]

PC: And whose Set and Costume Design was by Gary McGann who has joined us.

[Below: the young Santa Claus (Jonathan Blalock, right) is joined by four elves (Keith Jameson, Lucy Schaufer, Kevin Burdette and Hila Plitman) in Paul Curran’s 2015 The Dallas Opera production of Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus”; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Wm: Hi, Gary.

PC: With “Becoming Santa Claus”, Gary and I were trying to be true to Mark’s story which is charming, touching and fun. Mark’s opera cleverly mixes two stories: the Nativity and the origins of Santa Claus and modern gift giving and charity.

By the time that we were brought into the project, it was in the middle of the planning process. There were real challenges. The opera has no chorus, but has four elves as important characters. I did not think young apprentice artists would be ideal for the elves. I wanted four seasoned professionals. The Dallas Opera agreed and I got Kevin Burdette, Keith Jameson, Lucy Schaufer and Hila Plitman. Pretty impressive casting, if you ask me.

Wm: I’m of the opinion that with a couple of tweaks, including an intermission, that “Becoming Santa Claus” could become a holiday favorite.

PC: I agree and imagine Mark Adamo does tooLots of operas have had changes after their initial runs, but, you know, once an opera’s gotten to a certain point in rehearsal, it’s very difficult to make a change like dividing a one act opera into two acts.

Wm: We’re meeting here in the Santa Opera Cantina in a break between rehearsals of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel [Le Coq d’Or]”, a work you’ve been associated with in other productions. What should people look for in this production?

PC: “Coq d’Or” was considered a politically subversive piece, whose performances were forbidden by Tsar Nicholas the Second. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the piece after being fired for protesting the tsar’s crackdown on the dissent that raged over his missteps in the preemptive and misguided war with Japan. Rimsky-Korsakov died soon afterwards and never saw his piece premiered.

The main character, Tsar Dodon, is a headstrong leader with two stupid sons and a hopeless and sycophantic bunch of advisors. The cockerel is the gift of a mysterious astrologer – a bird that tweets when danger is close by.  One can find parallels down to the present day.

Wm: I appreciate your spending your break between rehearsals with me. I look forward to seeing the show later this month.

PC: Thanks. Come down and watch the next rehearsal session.

Wm: Will do!